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Four approaches to technology transfer at Higher Education Institutions

Jose Villagran

Have you ever wondered how research results are transformed into real-world applications? Welcome to the world of technology transfer, one of the strongest bridges between academia and industry, as well as a tool for driving innovation and boosting regional development.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation defines technology transfer as the “transfer of innovative solutions that are protected by different intellectual property rights”. Whether you are a curious academic, an entrepreneur in the making or a business leader, we introduce you to the most common approaches to technology transfer, and the frameworks for their implementation.

Licensing

Considered an element of the traditional approach to technology transfer, licensing consists of granting permission to third parties for the limited use of a technology protected behind a patent. Licensing is an almost natural consequence of the invention process at universities and depending on the technology, it can be a solid source of revenue for the institution.

Pros:

  • Revenue generation
  • Mitigation of risks associated to commercialisation of technologies[1]
  • Access to new markets

Cons:

  • Loss of control over the licensed technology
  • Seeking ethical alignment with the licensee can be time consuming and difficult to achieve
  • Can be regarded as old news and as a trap that results in closed innovation[2]

Interested in a framework for licensing at your institution? Check these publications:

  1. In the public interest: Nine points to consider in licensing university technology, AUTM (2007)
  2. Licensing Biotech Intellectual Property in University-Industry Partnerships, Drozdoff, V., Fairbairn, D. (2015)

Spin-offs

Praised as the archetypal model for technology transfer in an entrepreneurial university, a spin-off is a new venture created to commercialise university research[3]. Spin-offs are considered a very fitting and desirable outcome for universities as they can potentially generate wealth and positively impact regional development.

Pros:

  • Seen as a sign of entrepreneurialism
  • Driver for wealth and regional development
  • Platform for the exploitation of assets owned by the university
  • Helps fulfil the universities’ third mission

Cons:

  • Mismatches between academic’s and entrepreneur’s mindset
  • Difficulty to access funding, staff and business development services
  • Low ROI for the universities, as they require a large amount of resources
  • Difficulty for the university to retain the spin-off or to stay involved as the company grows and becomes more complex

Want to dive deeper into university spin-offs? Check these publications:

  1. Understanding academic entrepreneurship: Exploring the emergence of university spin-off ventures using process theories, Rasmussen, E. (2011)
  2. Creating University Spin-Offs: A Science-Based Design Perspective, van Burg, E., Gilsing, V. A., Reymen, I. M. M. J., & Romme, A. G. L. (2008)
  3. Academic Spin-Offs at Different Ages: A Case Study in Search of Key Obstacles to Growth, van Geenhuizen, M., Soetanto, D.P. (2009)

(International) University Research Ventures

International University Research Ventures (IURVs) are formally consolidated research operations set up by home country universities through the establishment of research centres, facilities and other institutionalised research partnerships in foreign countries[4].

Pros:

  • Increase in research productivity, knowledge pools, resources and skills
  • Visibility for the individuals involved
  • Access to new collaboration opportunities among researchers
  • Tool for building capacity in emerging economies

Cons:

  • Their magnitude demands a strong management and a well defined extent of collaboration
  • Need for control mechanisms, monitoring and evaluation
  • Need for clear boundaries on the ownership of the knowledge produced by the research venture
  • Potential conflicts born out of misalignments on the latter

Thinking about pursuing an IURV? Check these out:

  1. Mapping the emergence of international university research ventures, Kolesnikov, S., Woo, S., Li, Y., Shapira, P., & Youtie, J. (2017)
  2. Institutionalization of international university research ventures, Youtie, J., Li, Y., Rogers, J., & Shapira, P. (2017)

Consulting and contract services

Universities, particularly those more active in engaging with industry, can seek the establishment of partnerships and the provision of consulting services through commissioned research and development contracts with companies. As universities are no longer the only knowledge providers on offer, the whole world is one market and the situation calls for more structured approaches such as commissioned research and service provision coming from HEIs.

Pros:

  • Alternative source of revenue
  • Access to new networks and human capital
  • Potential increase in scientific output and influence
  • Good marketing can lead to brand awareness and a better reputation for the university

Cons:

  • Strong competition, not only from other universities (local or foreign), but also from companies
  • Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) tend to overestimate the commercial potential of research
  • Companies don’t get along well with TTOs and they prefer to deal directly with researchers, which means that some of these collaborations fly under the university’s radar
  • Fully dependent on the ability of stakeholders involved to align and build a relationship based on trust and mutual commitment

Some examples of universities offering consultancy and commissioned research:

  1. University of Essex
  2.  University of Cambridge
  3.  Utrecht University

Technology transfer in STEM and Social Sciences & Humanities – Is it the same?

In short: no, although it is not entirely different either. Research indicates that transfer happens differently in STEM and SSH contexts. While STEM is stronger in formal technology transfer environments dominated by licenses, non-disclosure agreements or contracts, SSH does not seem to fit well into those transfer models[5]. Transfer in SSH happens more informally. Thus, it tends to be more difficult to measure and not primarily profit-oriented, being closely related to the personal and civic duties of the researcher[6]. The more informal character of knowledge transfer in SSH makes it more difficult to measure, however this does not mean that SSH transfers are less impactful, in fact they have the potential to spark systemic changes.

References

[1] Davis, L.N. (2006). Licensing strategies of the enterprising university.

[2] McAdam, M., Miller, K., & McAdam, R. (2021). A multi-level perspective on university technology transfer processes: Insights from corporate governance.

[3] Fini, R., Fu, K., Mathisen, M. T., Rasmussen, E., & Wright, M. (2016). Institutional determinants of university spin-off quantity and quality: a longitudinal, multilevel, cross-country study.

[4] Kolesnikov, S., Woo, S., Li, Y., Shapira, P., & Youtie, J. (2017). Mapping the emergence of international university research ventures.

[5] Olmos-Penuela, J., Benneworth, P., & Castro-Martinez, E. (2013). Are sciences essential and humanities elective? Disentangling competing claims for humanities’ research public value.

[6] Wutti, D., & Hayden, M. (2017). Knowledge transfer in the social sciences and humanities: Informal links in a knowledge community in Austria.


Jose Villagran-Polo (author) is the Deputy Manager R&D Projects at UIIN and works on topics related to university-business collaboration, entrepreneurial education and the role of university-based incubators in their regions.

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